$3.6-million anti-smoking campaign went up in smoke

The federal government spent more than $3.6 million to update health warnings on cigarette packages before deciding to shelve the whole project earlier this year, newly released internal records show.

The Health Canada documents, itemizing expenditures on the project, were tabled at a parliamentary committee probing why the Conservative government has failed to follow through on a long-running project to require tobacco companies to put larger, more graphic health warnings on packages of cigarettes.

Most of the money was spent on public-opinion research, which consistently showed Canadian smokers had dulled to the old graphics, first introduced in 2001, and larger, more graphic images were needed to curb smoking. Staff time at Health Canada’s tobacco directorate, which also spent time analyzing the results of these polling and surveys between 2005 and 2009, is not included in the cost estimates.

Canada has dropped dramatically in an international ranking of cigarette package health warnings after snagging top spot a decade ago. Canada now ranks 15th alongside 18 other countries.

Canada has dropped dramatically in an international ranking of cigarette package health warnings after snagging top spot a decade ago. Canada now ranks 15th alongside 18 other countries.

Another $496,000 was transferred to the provinces to develop a national quit line to appear on cigarette packs alongside health warnings covering 75 per cent of the panel’s surface — up from the current level of 50 per cent.

The quit line was a priority of provincial health officials, who were informed by Health Canada in August that there would be no action on the file for the foreseeable future.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq reiterated this message to health ministers in September at a ministerial meeting. Aglukkaq informed them Ottawa would be focusing on cracking down on contraband cigarettes.

The newly released records, which includes a meeting log of stakeholder meetings about the government’s tobacco labelling renewal project, show Health Canada informed Imperial Tobacco of “suspended regulatory projects” and its contraband strategy months earlier during a private meeting in May.

That represented a significant shift in position from the previous fall, according to the list of stakeholder meetings.

In September 2009, Health Canada met with anti-tobacco advocates to provide an “update on labelling renewal initiative.” At this meeting, government officials showed mock-ups of bigger, more graphic pictures and messages to cover most of the panel’s surface in preparation for drafting final regulations to be published in the new year.

Health Canada then held three separate meetings with tobacco companies between November 2009 and April 2010 to “update” the industry about the “labelling renewal initiative” before the final meeting in May with Imperial Tobacco about suspended regulatory action.

Tobacco companies have consistently lobbied against bigger health warnings on cigarette packages, and have told the federal government the focus should be on cracking down on contraband cigarettes.

Liberal health critic Ujjal Dosanjh, who tabled a motion last week at the House of Commons health committee asking for the records to be tabled, said Tuesday’s partial release of documents related to costs and lobbying paint a clear picture.

“This minister suspended the project back in May or earlier, didn’t tell anybody in the world, not even the provincial health ministers and stopped consulting everyone. This is a very clear sign that this minister and this government bowed to pressure from the tobacco industry to terminate the labelling renewal project — and that’s a matter of shame,” Dosanjh said in an interview.

Megan Leslie, health critic for the NDP, said the records “spell out in black and white” that Aglukkaq listened to the tobacco lobby rather than her department’s own public-opinion research.

“What it says to me is this government is more concerned with caving in to tobacco lobby groups than the health of Canadians,” said Leslie. “There was an awful lot of research, time and money that went it to figuring out how to change the labelling so it will work again and they’ve taken it off the table. Why wouldn’t we capitalize on this?”

MPs will get a chance to ask Health Canada executives, including the head of the tobacco directorate, about the change in policy focus when they appear at the parliamentary committee on Thursday.

source: Postmedia News

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